Can the ''The Thin Red Line'' succeed? -- Fox's WWII flick faces tough competition from ''Saving Private Ryan''

It may be the bloodiest World War II battle…of 1998. On Dec. 23, just days before the Oscar deadline, Twentieth Century Fox will launch an attack on DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan by releasing director Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in New York and L.A. (The film opens nationwide Jan. 15.)

The battle plan is for strong word of mouth to whisk Malick and company directly onto the Academy’s radar — at Ryan‘s expense. If only war were so simple.

Fox faces the daunting task of selling Oscar voters — not to mention the moviegoing public — on the second major WWII movie of the year, only a few months after many critics hailed Ryan as the greatest war film ever made. Fox’s marketing dilemma is profound: Line boasts such Ryan-esque highlights as a star-heavy ensemble cast (featuring Sean Penn, John Travolta, John Cusack, and Woody Harrelson, among others), a brand-name director in Malick, and a film that promises a metaphysical take on the soul of the foot soldier. None of these parallels seem to faze Fox Domestic Film Group chief Tom Sherak: ”WWII lasted for six years. There are a lot of stories to tell.” Besides, he adds, alluding to one criticism of Ryan, ”Line is about what people are feeling, not about arms and legs being blown off.”

Still, a number of observers point to the numerous risks Fox is running with its Oscar-oriented strategy. Jamming Line into the crowded holiday schedule ”puts one of the most-anticipated films of the year at a terrible disadvantage,” says one MGM marketing executive. ”An Academy run in just a few markets…sets expectations so high. What if the critics don’t embrace it? It’s like a Broadway play — open to bad reviews and you’re dead in the water.” Adds a Universal exec: ”Nobody can understand why they don’t wait until spring. This is supposed to be a really special film. [Open it now] and everyone is going to size it up against Ryan.”

Sherak bristles at the second-guessing: ”Say we wait until June and Ryan wins 12 Academy Awards. We’ll still be in its shadow. Besides, this is one of the most-anticipated pictures of the year. ‘The year’ means this year!”

Compounding Fox’s problems is the fact that the deliberate Malick will be working on the film right up until its release; critics who screen the movie a few days before it opens will see it without its score. Also, Fox won’t be able to draw on Malick for promotional support; the long-lost and notoriously shy auteur — his last film was 1978’s Days of Heaven — refuses to do any press for the film. By contrast, Spielberg stumped heavily for Ryan, something that clearly worked to the $190 million-grossing film’s advantage.

For now, Fox is taking the glass-is-half-full attitude. As Sherak points out, ”If [Line] didn’t open this year, everyone would be doing stories about what’s wrong with the movie.” War, as they say, is hell.

Saving Private Ryan
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